Savoring the Pleasures of Puebla, Mexico

Frying molotes, savory pastries, in Puebla.

There are places to which we travel, and imagine staying. Why not just quit our job, rent a little apartment, tell the folks at home we’ll be back when our money runs out?

For me, one such place is Puebla. An easy two-hour drive or bus ride southeast of Mexico City, Puebla seems light years away from the pollution and buzz of the capital. With a temperate mountain climate, a relatively prosperous and relaxed atmosphere and the best street food in Mexico (or so Poblanos claim, and why not believe them?), Puebla is also visually beautiful. Its historical center, the centro, contains so many gems of Spanish colonial architecture, such a range of beautiful churches, and so many vintage buildings covered in the colorful, patterned Talavera tiles for which the city is famous, that it has been designated a Unesco World Heritage site.

The fantasy of remaining indefinitely in Puebla used to come over me mostly in the Zócalo, the verdant central plaza, where it’s pleasant to sit on a bench in the shade, and where there is always something to see. In mid-July, my visit coincided with graduation — Puebla is an important university town — and it was fun to watch the groups of students in academic gowns, together with their proud families, celebrating and taking photos. Every generation — high school kids, mothers pushing strollers, young lovers, skateboarders, elderly couples — gravitates to the Zócalo, where you can always tell, from the images on the balloons being sold by the vendors, which cartoon figure has captured the popular imagination; this summer, it was definitely Despicable Me.

I still love spending time in the Zócalo, but the place where I most often imagined staying in Puebla forever shifted, on this visit, to the rooftop cafe of the Museo Amparo. How wonderful it would be to come here every morning, set up my laptop, sip the cafe’s excellent coffee and look up from my computer to see one of the most beautiful vistas imaginable — the rooftops of Puebla set against the background of the surrounding countryside.

Two blocks from the Zócalo, the Museo Amparo houses an impressive collection of pre-Hispanic and colonial art and hosts a series of expertly curated temporary exhibits. For the past several years, the Amparo has been undergoing a major redesign and renovation; the pre-Columbian section will be closed for construction until late fall. But the compensation is the spare, elegant rooftop garden from which you can see the centro, a vista dominated by the dark stone of the monumental cathedral.

Begun in the 16th century, the enormous structure was consecrated three-quarters of a century later and completed over several hundred years, during which the interior was furnished with elaborately carved choir stalls and a mammoth pipe organ; the canopy over the central altar was added in the early 19th century. It is said that an angel appeared to help the builders manage the challenging task of installing the eight-and-a-half-ton bell in the south tower. Surrounding the cathedral, visible from the terrace of the Museo Amparo, the domes of nearby churches covered in brightly patterned tile give the roofscape an oddly Middle Eastern appearance.

Puebla contains hundreds of churches, ranging in style from the austere San Juan de Letran, decorated with wooden statues depicting (in gory detail) the wounds of Christ and the suffering of the souls in purgatory, to, at the opposite extreme, the Rosary Chapel in the Church of Santo Domingo. Much of the chapel — a masterpiece of Baroque architecture, begun in 1571 and finished in 1659 — is covered in gold leaf; nearly every square inch is adorned with painted panels, statues of angels and saints, onyx pillars, Talavera tile, vines, flowers, swirls and arabesques of exuberant golden tracery. Restored in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the chapel continues to play an important role in the spiritual life of Poblanos, who celebrate weddings and baptisms under its gleaming dome.

In fact, the Rosary Chapel was part of the reason I’d come to Puebla this summer: to see my 2-year-old granddaughter, Malena, baptized beneath the golden cherubs and surrounded by the beaming faces of her family. Were Puebla a better-known travel destination, the ceremony might have been interrupted by busloads of tourists trudging through the gorgeous chapel, but this was Puebla, and for the length of the ceremony we had the place to ourselves.

It’s strange to think of Mexico’s fourth-largest city as a secret, but that’s how it often seems; it’s rare to see tourists on the streets and rarer still to hear English spoken. When Puebla’s hotels fill up on weekends, and rates rise accordingly, most of the other guests are Mexican, many of whom have driven from Mexico City. Partly they have come to admire Puebla’s cultural treasures; among the most notable is the Biblioteca Palafoxiana, the extensive, handsome library assembled by Juan de Palafox de Mendoza, bishop and later viceroy of Puebla in the 17th century.

But Mexicans also come to shop in Puebla’s stores and crafts and antiques markets. It’s enjoyable to walk through the districts of shops conveniently grouped together so Poblanos know where to find a certain item; not far from the Zócalo, Calle 6 Oriente (the numbering of the streets has a logic of its own that takes some getting used to) specializes in the handmade sweets and candies for which Puebla is known throughout the country. On the Avenida Reforma, near the Paseo Bravo, is a block of stores selling cowboy boots and Western shirts. Need to hire a mariachi band? Calle 9 Poniente, east of Calle 16 de Septiembre, is the place to go. And the El Parian market offers textiles, ceramics and crafts from all over Mexico.

But it’s on the weekends when the city really comes alive as a place to browse — especially at the diverse (and mostly inexpensive) flea market in the Plazuela de los Sapos, where you can buy old books, religious articles, photos, lucky charms and jewelry. This summer, I bought a retablo, a votive painting traditionally created in gratitude for some miracle and often depicting an act of rescue. The text and the image on mine thanked God for having saved a man from having been discovered in bed with his best friend’s wife. The more established antiques shops around the Plazuela keep somewhat irregular hours, but can be counted on to be open on weekend afternoons.

At the top of the Plazuela de los Sapos is one of Puebla’s most beloved institutions — La Pasita, a tiny shop crammed with knickknacks and just large enough for a counter at which you can stand and sample small glasses of the more than a dozen handmade liqueurs. Among the popular favorites are the namesake pasita, distilled from raisins, and rompope, a delicious sort of eggnog, but there are other flavors: almond, pineapple, coconut, and shot glasses banded with drinks of different colors.

Watching customers belly up to the bar at La Pasita is a reminder of Puebla’s simultaneously serious and casual approach to food and drink — and the reason so many Mexicans visit Puebla: to eat. The region has many local specialties, many of them labor-intensive, and the city has plenty of first-rate restaurants at which to try them. Because it is a university city, and a rather prosperous one, Puebla has seen the arrival of the sorts of places one might find in a college town anywhere — only more pleasant. Perhaps the most inviting place to meet friends for breakfast or later for drinks is Profetica, a colonial mansion that has been restored and transformed into a cultural center that hosts readings and performances and that has a free lending library, a bookstore that carries some books in English, and an excellent cafe.

Puebla gets credit for the invention of mole sauce — that would be mole poblano. The city hosted a mole festival in May 2012 that drew star chefs from north of the border, and in both humble and fancy restaurants, mole regularly appears on meats, over enchiladas and under fried eggs for breakfast. Another delicacy that spread from Puebla outward is pipián sauce, made with pumpkin seeds, and a dish that happens to be my favorite, partly because it’s such an ingenious mixture of savory and sweet and partly because it’s available only at certain times of the year when the ingredients are fresh. That is chiles en nogada, a green chili stuffed with a concoction of meat and dried fruits, topped with a walnut cream sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.

But by and large, I prefer the city’s street food, which is not necessarily less elaborate to prepare than the moles and pipiáns but certainly faster to cook — and eat. Hugely popular family restaurants like Las Ranas and La Oriental specialize in what’s essentially a street classic: tacos árabes, made with pork shaved off a rotating hunk of meat and allegedly brought to the country (hence its name) by the wave of Lebanese immigrants who arrived in the 1930s and recreated, on this continent, this Latin-accented version of shawarma. But I’m even more fond of the dishes served in the sorts of places that serve only one thing, places that you have to hunt down, or know someone who lives there, places that seem, like so much in Puebla, like the best sort of open secret.

In the Mercado Melchor Ocampo El Carmen, long lines — and I mean long lines — form at lunch for the cemitas that are the pride of Puebla. These overstuffed sandwiches — you can order them with white cheese or with breaded pork cutlets (milanesas), and they’re served on a large white roll with guacamole, pickled onions and chilies — are not only delicious but filling enough to take you through the rest of the afternoon and evening. Except that when I’m in Puebla, I always find myself wanting, and eating, several meals a day.

My absolute favorite — the one that feels most secret, and the most like a privilege to eat — are the molotes, the sizzling empanada-like savory pastries made by a group of women who set up their caldrons and get down to some serious deep-frying in an alley off Calle 16 de Septiembre across from the Jardín del Carmen, a block in the direction of the Zócalo. You place your order for molotes with mushrooms or cheese, red or green sauce, then sit on a bench to wait. The ladies hand you a paper plate stacked with pure deliciousness.

Surrounded by multigenerational families tucking into the crispy, fragrant fried pastries, I can imagine coming here often in the evenings, after a day of writing on the terrace of the Museo Amparo, and enjoying the flavors and the pleasures of Puebla.


Where to Stay

We stayed at the El Sueño Hotel and Spa, 9 Oriente 12, (52-222) 232-64-23. Rooms start at $130 per night.

Where to Eat

Mercado Melchor Ocampo El Carmen, 21 Oriente 205, no phone (for cemitas).

Las Ranas, 2 Poniente 102 (for tacos).

Fonda la Mexicana, 16 de Septiembre 706, (52-222) 232-67-47 (relaxed family restaurant; excellent mole poblano).

El Mural de los Poblanos, 16 de Septiembre 506, (52-222) 242-05-03; (a more elegant place to try local specialties).

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